League of Conservation Voters' Karpinski says 'clean coal' claims by industry untrue

On the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama touted "clean coal" as a key part of his energy platform. As he transitions to the White House, how will his administration shape policy to promote the research and development of carbon capture-and-storage technology? During today's OnPoint, Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, explains why he believes the coal industry's use of the term "clean coal" is a mischaracterization. He urges the deployment of alternative forms of energy, such as wind and solar, instead of the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Karpinksi also comments on how the chairmanship shift in the House Energy and Commerce Committee will affect energy policy and climate legislation during the next session of Congress.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today is Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. Gene, great to have you on the show.

Gene Karpinski: Great to be here today Monica, thanks.

Monica Trauzzi: Gene, LCV is part of a new campaign called the Reality Campaign and is focusing on debunking some of the myths, or what you perceive as myths about clean coal. Why is LCV involved in this campaign?

Gene Karpinski: This is a very exciting campaign. As we've seen, anyone who watches TV or looks in the print media has seen a multimillion dollar campaign by the coal industry trying to claim that they're clean. Well, in fact, as this new campaign makes clear, the myth that there is clean coal is just not so. And just as saying it doesn't make it so, spending tens of millions of dollars doesn't make it so either. So the purpose of this campaign is really to expose the fraud that we might have clean coal today. Challenging the coal industry, sure, perhaps it's possible that in the future there may be technology that can capture carbon and sequester in the ground. That technology does not exist today, so it's really a false claim. They make that claim. They try to confuse the public about the fact that there is "clean" coal. That's their banner. That's their mantra. And the goal of the reality campaign, and again, we're joined by Vice President Gore who's played a leadership role in this issue and many other climate change issues, but also by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation to really make sure the public understands that the claim of clean coal today is just not so. You may have seen one of the commercials. It's a fascinating, I think very clever commercial, really exposing the fact that there is no clean coal technology today.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what is your definition of clean coal? Does it mean that 90 percent of the emissions need to be captured and stored?

Gene Karpinski: Well, I think that's a challenge. I think we really need to get to a place where there should be no new coal-fired power plants unless they can capture and sequester the carbon and store it underground safely. They can't do that yet today. They sort of claim they can, but, in fact, they can't. So sure, if there's going to be more coal in this country it needs to have a technology that at least 90 percent of that carbon is captured and stored underground. Maybe we will get to that point, but in the meantime we shouldn't confuse the public. We should make clear, in fact, when we make our biggest investments, as a public, we should invest in what we know are clean technologies, like wind, like solar, like efficiency, rather than betting the farm on a technology that does that yet exist.

Monica Trauzzi: You say maybe we'll get there some day, but what do we do in the interim? I mean we need coal. Coal is a huge industry in the U.S. We have very high energy demands. It would seem to most that we can't really meet our energy demands by just depending on wind and solar and other alternative forms of energy. So what do we do in the interim until we do have CCS technology if we shouldn't be building new coal-fired power plants?

Gene Karpinski: Again, if we ever get to that clean coal technology.

Monica Trauzzi: So, you're not entirely convinced that that might even happen?

Gene Karpinski: Yeah, clearly the jury is out on that. But the more important question is what do we do right now, which is exactly the right question. First and foremost it's all about efficiency. Efficiency is the quickest, cleanest, cheapest, safest way to reduce our demand right now. And that's in our automobiles, that's in our buildings, that's in our appliances, that's in our light bulbs, across the board. You can significantly cut demand for electricity by instituting a whole host of technology measures that are on the shelf, but they're not yet in our cars or not yet in all our light bulbs, they're not yet in all our appliances. That's number one. And at the same time, we then invest in the clearly clean technologies of the future, which is wind and solar and geothermal to get us to the next place along the way. But efficiency is number one.

Monica Trauzzi: And those come with their own set of issues. I mean there are major transmission hurdles that we have to overcome.

Gene Karpinski: Sure, over time we have challenges, but clearly there's been a major growth in wind in particular. We've seen it be very successful competitively and more growth coming all the time and all kinds of new, green jobs being created to deal with solar panels on roofs, to build the wind turbines and put the wind turbines in the appropriate places. So there are still challenges with any of these technologies. That's why we start with efficiency and significantly reduce -- now, again, efficiency that's on the shelves for our cars, for our appliances, for our light bulbs, for our buildings, do that first, while at the same time investing in renewables and solar and wind and geothermal as a wave of the future. Some of that's here now, but we need more of it down the road obviously.

Monica Trauzzi: President-elect Obama spoke about clean coal a lot on the campaign trail, what does that signal to you in terms of how he might handle the issue of clean coal once he's in office? He's also from Illinois, a coal state.

Gene Karpinski: Sure, but he actually answered our question on our candidate question. We've had conversations and what he's signaling is that he'd like to see us get to the clean coal we talked about, which is having new coal plants capture and store and sequester that carbon. So that's an appropriate goal for him to have. He also understands that that technology does not exist today.

Monica Trauzzi: But that means that we have to put the appropriate money for research and development into it.

Gene Karpinski: I'm sure there will continue to be research into that. We would say the bulk of the research, if you want to be serious about it into the future, is to put more of that into the efficiency, into renewables, into solar, into wind, into geothermal. But sure, there will still be some research to see if we can get to the so-called clean coal that we might get to someday, but that shouldn't be where the bulk of the money goes.

Monica Trauzzi: He has a big decision coming up in March relating to funding for the FutureGen project and whether there should be a large-scale demonstration plant in Mattoon, Illinois. Is that something that the government should be moving forward with?

Gene Karpinski: You know, we'll see. I think you have to look at all the data. You have to look at all the evidence. I think it's one of the things that I'm sure will be in the mix at some level. But, again, if you look at what we think the economic recovery package will entail, coming out of the box hopefully in January, most of that will be invested in new kinds of technology. You heard the President-elect talk last weekend about why green buildings make sense, both because it cuts down on CO2 pollution, but also because it creates new, green jobs here at home. So that's the kind of vision that he's had. That's what he talked about on a daily basis. He talked about the economy being a problem and energy being the solution. And that energy was about investing in the new, green technologies, a new green economy. His words, a new energy economy, his words, and that was primarily about fuel-efficient cars, solar, wind, renewables, efficient buildings. That's the kind of vision that he campaigned on that's the kind of vision that he has and we think we'll see that vision over the course of the next year.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's focus on bigger picture energy for a moment and talk politics. What do you see the shift in chairmanship in the House Energy and Commerce Committee from Dingell to Waxman meaning for energy and climate legislation during the next session of Congress? What does Waxman bring to the table that Dingell didn't have? What do we lose by losing Dingell?

Gene Karpinski: Sure, well, first of all, it's been five weeks since the election and we're still smiling because there have been all kinds of changes in all kinds of ways. And, again, it starts at the top with a new president who had the vision and the leadership. We're also seeing changes in the administration. But clearly, in terms of their track records, Mr. Dingell actually made some important steps forward in the last couple of years. But Henry Waxman has clearly been a leader and a champion specifically on these issues, since he came with the Congress 25 years ago. So clearly a leader and a champion. He's had the model bills in the Congress, in the last couple of Congress of where we think we need to go. He organizes his other members, colleagues to be in the same place as he was. So he's been a leader and an organizer. We think Mr. Dingell still has to play an important role, as we think he will. You know, we're going to need bipartisan support to pass the bill. So we want both of them at the table, but crafting the kind of solution -- again, using the vision and the specific benchmarks that the President-elect put out about what we need to do to cut the CO2 pollution and working as a team to get that through the House and through the Senate.

Monica Trauzzi: And to that end, what do you see as the biggest differences between the last session of Congress and this coming session of Congress in terms of the energy and climate legislation that we might see?

Gene Karpinski: Well, you see first of all it does start at the top, because having someone in the White House who uses the bully pulpit, who has a vision and the leadership and really campaigned on these issues, talks about them every day, makes it part of his priorities. That's probably the single biggest difference, because the Congress that's listening to a president who has his head in the sand on global warming doesn't get us anywhere. A president listening to a Congress who says here's my vision, here's my leadership, here's what we need to do, that's the biggest change. But secondly, honestly, I think the second most significant is the change in the Senate. You know, you need 60 votes to pass any bill in the Senate. We know that we've seen that. We had a record number of filibusters in the last Congress. We were able to, as you know, pass a bill to increase fuel efficiency for the first time in 32 years, but it was a step forward, but we could do better. We obviously need to do more. We need to have an economic recovery plan that creates green jobs. We need to pass new energy measures and also we need a cap on global warming pollution. I think the biggest difference besides having a real leader in the White House who gets it is having a Senate with much more pro-environment votes. Again, you can't pass a bill without bipartisan support. We endorse candidates on both sides now. We endorse Susan Collins in her reelection. We need bipartisan support to pass that bill in the Senate, but we're much closer to that bipartisan support to get to that 60 vote margin that we need in the Senate today than we were a year ago. It's a very different Senate coming in. I met with Mark Begich this morning from Alaska, new senator from Alaska, very exciting. He campaigned on a new energy vision. As a mayor he was a leader in Anchorage talking about a new energy future and what to do to solve global warming. Those are the kinds of leaders, Mark Udall, Tom Udall, Gene Shaheen, Mark Warner ... They've come here with a vision and they campaigned on these issues, so that's the other biggest difference. Many more people in the Senate who get this issue working with a president who gets it.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, in terms of climate legislation specifically, it seems like it's going to be a long road ahead. I mean do the Democrats really need to start from scratch here or was enough ground made with the Lieberman-Warner debate? You know, the Dingell-Boucher draft was also released. I mean where do we stand in terms of our starting point and how long it might take to actually get some legislation on the table?

Gene Karpinski: Important question also. I think we start in a very different place and actually we saw it with President-elect Obama two weeks after he was elected when he sent the signal to the conference out in California, which is he reiterated his vision of where we need to go in terms of the specific benchmarks of how much we need to cut pollution, 80 percent by 2050, and the steps along the way to get there. So I think this will be and needs to be a presidential initiative, working with leaders on both sides of the aisle who share that vision. But the difference is a presidential initiative that comes from the White House says here's what we need to do to tackle this problem, this will be the single biggest difference and will get us the success that we need.

Monica Trauzzi: Smart move if Obama decides to use the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions? Is that going to get Congress to move faster on legislation?

Gene Karpinski: You know, we sent the transition team an almost 400-page document with a whole set of recommendations across the board. But some of the priority ones are on the issues of energy and climate as you suggest. And we made it clear we think that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should continue to increase fuel economy standards, the Department of Energy should continue to increase appliance standards, and the EPA should both number one, grant the waiver to California and other states to move forward on cutting CO2 emissions from cars. And number two, begin to regulate carbon as a pollutant, just as the Supreme Court said they should. And, again, the Bush administration ducked that question, but it's time for the new administration to use its existing authority in EPA, in DOT, in the Department of Energy to begin to cut carbon pollution. That helps create a framework to have a conversation, but ultimately Congress needs to act as well to really put a cap on global warming pollution.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question here. President-elect Obama recently chose Bill Richardson as his pick for Secretary of Commerce. He's well known in the energy community. What do you think he brings to the table in terms of energy policy and the push for alternative energy?

Gene Karpinski: We think it was a fantastic choice. You know, when he was running for President we worked with all the candidates to try to push them to have very aggressive plans. And, obviously, President-elect Obama has a very aggressive plan. Governor Richardson, when he was running actually had the most aggressive plan of any candidate at the time we announced it back in May of 2007. So he gets these issues. I think he was by far one of the handful of greenest governors in the country as he was a governor as well. So as he comes into this new position, which, again, has to do with the economy, has to do with energy, has a lot of jurisdiction over NOAA as you know. His vision and his leadership and what he campaigned on and talked about both as a governor and as a presidential candidate is a great plus. And, again, underscores how President-elect Obama puts a priority on these issues and is putting people in place, just as Secretary of State Clinton will be, she's had a vision obviously as well and she's going to have to negotiate the national agreements around need as well. So people like that in very important positions who understand these issues have made them a priority and are part of his team. That makes it so exciting.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Gene Karpinski: Great, appreciate it.

Monica Trauzzi: Nice meeting you.

Gene Karpinski: Thanks for your time.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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